Written by Adele Cutting
When I started Soundcuts Ltd 6 years ago, I don’t think I was quite aware what an exciting ride I was just about to go on, and just how much I was going to learn, or the wide range of projects we were going to be developing sound on – from Mobile, Console, PC, VR games, to interactive websites, Interactive Live events and installations to linear animation series, commercials and viral trailers.
I had previously worked at Electronic Arts for 15 years. Starting as a contractor in late 1996 and working my way up the ranks to become a Senior Audio Director in 2007, I’d had a lot of experience not only ‘doing’ the work – Sound Design, Music, Speech Production – but also extensive knowledge of the tools base, audio middleware and management skills like budgeting, scheduling, and mentoring.
I loved working at EA, but I also had a dream to run a games audio outsourcing company. A sound team that could work as an external audio department for games companies without audio resources in-house.
I was not prepared for the huge learning curve going into outsourcing was going to be
A lot of the skills I learnt at EA I was able to bring with me when I started Soundcuts. However, I was not prepared for the huge learning curve going into outsourcing was going to be.
There are a few obvious things that are completely different working for smaller games studios.
a) Time – A lot less.
b) Budget – A lot less.
c) Tech – A mixed bag.
d) Knowledge – Audio knowledge on teams varies greatly.
Life in the freelance world
Time moves fast in the freelance world, and gone are the luxuries of paid research time. Everything is on the clock. Budgets are tight and you’ve got to work within them.
In a large company, you’re given time to learn new tech. Time to understand and experiment with a new platform – as a freelancer this is on you. For example, in a large company working on a VR title, you may never have worked on a VR title before, but you start and learn as you go, and eventually become an expert. To be hired on a VR title with an Indie studio, you won’t be hired unless you know VR. So it’s up to you to go out and read everything you can find on the subject and play as many things possible with an analytic ear to understand what’s going on.
Being freelance, every single game is completely different
Technology – Although I was used to the technology and toolset always changing, improving and being updated at EA, this was a gradual curve. Being freelance, every single game is completely different. It obviously helps in some cases having some familiarity with the engines such as Unity and Unreal, and the great audio middleware – such as – Wwise, FMOD, and Fabric. However, with budgets being tight, you’re very lucky if the game you’re working on does have audio middleware. It’s always something I suggest using as it makes for a lot of time saving and a far easier mix at the end, plus it provides some really seamless ways of editing music etc. (I love implementing interactive music in Wwise). But… the first question back from the client is often ‘How much will it cost’, and that is where it often stops with smaller teams.
Audio Outsourcing Success: Essential Tips, Thoughts and Working Practices from Adele Cutting
Team Culture – This is another aspect of the work I find really interesting. I’m a team player, it’s one of the reasons I wanted to start an external team and not be a loan freelancer. I’m always keen to find out what the team culture is like, as no two studios are the same.
As an outsourcer, communication is probably one of the biggest skills you have to use and being able to become part of the team is important
The way the team interacts with each other, the structure of the team, the type of language they use, how they schedule the game are all different. As an outsourcer, communication is probably one of the biggest skills you have to use, and being able to become part of the team is important. You need to understand their goals and what they’re trying to achieve. So I do think it helps if you can ‘read’ people. Audio knowledge on a game team varies hugely from team to team. You may find a team who claims to understand and value audio in reality doesn’t. Conversely, you may find a team who claim to not know anything about audio, yet completely get on board with all your ideas and it becomes the best-sounding game you work on. As part of your communication with a team, you need to change the style in which you deliver your ideas to the client, depending on their knowledge. Some teams might understand your ideas for the sound just by talking with them; with others it’s important to show them what you mean, or mock up examples of how it’s going to sound depending on different ways the sound is integrated.
Knowledge – I’ve worked in games audio for over 20 years. So, I know my stuff. However, no-one can know everything. Another reason I love working as part of an audio team, is the shared learning from your peers. Everyone has an area of expertise.
I’ve found it very important to do a lot of research and reading to keep up-to-date with tech, but also attending conferences to try and keep up to date with everything that’s going on. I’ve also had to really expand the tools I use in my sound design work. I’ve very much been a ‘Protools’ girl for the majority of my career. However I now find myself using multiple DAWS depending on the company I work for, and the type of work I’m doing. Some clients specify the delivery format, or deliver Soundcuts systems that can only be used with specific ones – so since leaving EA I’ve found myself using Protools, Nuendo, Cubase, Vegas, Abelton and Reaper.
Footage from Shadow of the Beast, a title which Soundcuts provided audio for
Starting A Project
As I’ve mentioned above time is of the essence. You don’t have months to experiment with ideas, it’s important you get to the focus point of the style of sound in the game quickly.
It’s important you get to the focus point of the style of sound in the game quickly
So the key thing for me to develop, when I’m new on a project, is a style guide. This is something that was a requirement in-house. It was an important part of pre-production on any game to create an Audio Direction Doc. It’s incredibly valuable.
Now, this has not been a requirement or deliverable on any game that I’ve worked on since, but I still do it as it’s useful to me during the development cycle of a game.
As I come from a film background, the way I work is to create the soundtrack I want and then work out how this can be implemented – obviously keeping in mind any of the game tech limitations whilst doing this. The style guides I make can come in many forms, but the key output is an understanding of the soundtrack we’re creating for the game.
It also becomes a valuable reference point for the game cycle, something to come back to.
It can be a game capture which I’ve tracklayed, or even a soundscape to go with some concept art. Doing a small section of work allows you to try a variety of ideas quickly and settle on a style that works. Rapid iteration is key. The visual style of the game is really important to me.
At the end of this process you should know what the soundtrack should and shouldn’t be. The sort of sounds that you’re wanting, the emotion you’re trying to create and the gameplay you’re trying to support. (I know there have been several articles on this, so if you need more information, read them :)
Sound in games in not just about creating a beautiful sound track, it also has to support the game mechanics
It’s also very important to understand the game design. Sound in games in not just about creating a beautiful soundtrack that supports the story and emotion in the game, it also has to support the game mechanics, and it is also a game mechanic in itself helping inform the player what is happening and what is about to happen in the game. It can make the game feel real — this is heightened in a VR experience.
During these early days (which are very few days generally due to time constraints), I like to get together a ‘bible’ of sounds, so I’ll create a library specifically for that game. I’ll go out and record a lot of things that I think will be relevant: Ambiences, spot effects, intricate Foley sounds. I personally only have a few simple recording devices. A Zoom H4N, which I love as it’s super small and I can take with me everywhere when you’re out an about and suddenly hear that sound that you’ve just got to get. I also have a larger recorder, an Edirol R-44, a shotgun mic and Rycote windshield and boom, and if we need more we hire it. My kids enjoy coming out recording with me too, my son’s always listening out for interesting sounds now.
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I also generate a huge bank of effects e.g. drones, or if on a project with ‘magic’, a ton of different magical elements. I’ve recently got into Ableton and Komplete as Dave Newby who works at Soundcuts is very into this, and it’s fantastic just to mess around and play with sounds in here.
Time to experiment
This is also a time to experiment with sound processes you’d like to use. On a recent indie game we had to create the voices of mechanical machines. Each machine was a giant mechanical animal. They didn’t talk in English, although subtitles were going to be on the screen so you understood what was being said. Dom Smart was one of the sound designers working on this project and I asked him to spend a couple of days trying various processes and creating Max MSP patches that we could use for these.
Another thing I love to do is search for beautiful recordings. I love collecting sound effects. It’s probably one of my favourite things, I can’t stop myself. I’m an addict. I like researching indie libraries — buying a whole library just on pig sound effects for instance.
In an ideal world, I’d love to record all my own sound (wouldn’t we all!), but time is tight and this is an impossibility. Sometimes we have less than a week to turn around sound for a game. If the game has a polar bear in it, you’re hardly likely to have time to fly off and find a polar bear and record it.. so you’ve got to know/find people who have already done this. One of the reasons I love indie libraries is that they’re fresh and not overused like some of the larger libraries.
At the end of this *very* short period, I should have a big chunk of audio that I can go to, designed with the ‘style’ guide in mind.
At the start of the project we’re creating a vast amount of useful sound that we can dip into during the project
During this small time at the start of the project we’re creating a vast amount of useful sound that we can dip into during the project. They’ll still be a whole load of new sound to design, to create during the project, but this is a great starting point and useful for keeping a ‘style’ for the game. It makes it quicker further down the line to have this resource to pull from. It’s also incredibly useful if we ramp up the amount of sound designers on the project, as there’s a lot of reference material readily available for them to use, and give a clear direction. We often have games that span multiple months, but we’re only (due to budget) asked to work a handful of days each month. Having this resource means that it’s a lot easier to get back into the style of the project and pick up where you left off.
Creating a soundscape to concept work, or even a white-box first pass gameplay, is great to share with the dev team/producer. It also allows really early feedback on the sound before you’ve spent months of work on something they don’t like. You want them to love the final delivery, so it’s good way to get feedback before then.
Playlists allow a conversation to start on what the music for the game should sound like
I find Spotify playlists really useful when working with devs and composers on the music. It’s a really quick way to get a bunch of ideas together in one place. It allows a conversation to start on what the music for the game should sound like. Using temp tracks in-game can help lock down ideas on tempo, instrumentation and style really quickly. HOWEVER, this comes with a big warning. Don’t stick with one track… The idea is to show multiple tracks — one can be for instrumentation, another for emotion. If a producer gets attached to one track, this can become a problem for the composer, as the producer then wants a ‘sound-a-like’ of the track. So Spotify playlists should only be used as a springboard for ideas to discuss. If a composer is able to demo some of their own ideas as part of this process, that’s great.
We have brilliant in-house composers here at Soundcuts, but we also pull in other composers to work with us on projects too. A composer I’ve worked closely with on multiple projects is Ian Livingstone. I adore working with Ian because his music is always top-drawer and he is an absolute pleasure to work with, very quick and open to feedback and ideas. Shadow of the Beast was a new version of the 1989 Amiga classic. It was renowned for its music, so obviously that was one of the first things we looked at. We wanted to bring the soundtrack up to date, to match the visual style but still keep, and develop, the musical themes and motifs from the original music.
I did share a playlist with Ian with some other music as reference for the instrumentation and feel. We wanted an ‘otherworldly’ feel. Following on from this, Ian would send over small work-in-progress ideas for feedback, one of which became the ‘key’ to the entire music score moving forward. He’s a very generous composer too, sending me stems of all the music, which allowed me to remix to the stems and edit them to fit the cutscenes, which meant the music integration was a joy and gave me lots of different possibilities. I really wanted to blur the lines between what was music and what was ambience, so he created some beautiful drones in the tracks. There were a lot of really interesting ethnic musical instruments, so it was great to be able to take a few of these and manipulate them to become ambient spot effects.
We did a similar thing on Oure too, where gamelan instruments were the link between the music and the environmental ambience and spots.
We also work on projects where the audio has already been started. When we worked on Sunless Skies (Failbetter Games), we were hired to finish the sound design. This had already been started by the project’s Game Director Liam Welton, who was a sound designer for many years and had been designing sound on the game, but was running out of bandwidth with all his other responsibilities, so in this case a style had already been created. He was able to send us examples of the work to date, so we were able to replicate this style in our sound work. It’s always very nerve-wracking when working for someone who has been looking after the audio and has now entrusted it to you. I was very aware of this on Sunless Skies — it’s their baby, they don’t want to give it away, and if time wasn’t an issue, they’d be doing it. So you’ve got to be really careful to make sure they’re happy. We shared ideas on a regular basis, and then I’d contact Liam on Slack for feedback before delivering the final files. I think my proudest moment was when he emailed to say we’d turned him from ‘an audio outsourcing skeptic into a believer’. In fact not only that, but we won the Develop Creative Outsourcer – Audio award for our work on Sunless Skies!
On larger indie titles it’s good to have a proper Foley session at a Foley studio
On larger indie titles it’s good to have a proper Foley session at a Foley studio. We did this for The Room Three, where we spent time at Shepperton gathering together as much new material as we could. This is something that we do further down the line, when the game requirements are a lot clearer. We only have a small window for this so it’s good to prioritise the objects we feel will most benefit from this.
We also held Foley sessions for the audio-only game Audio Defence – Zombie Arena and Shadow of the Beast. This is a luxury, and cannot always be found in the budget.
Communication is key
Communication is important. I learnt this at EA when I was the in-house Audio Director hiring and working with outsourcers.
NOTHING is more frustrating when you’ve hired an outsourcer than…
1. Not hearing from them despite sending emails, leaving messages.
2. The deadline is approaching, but you still haven’t had a response from the email asking for the deliverables.
3. The outsourcer tells you on the day of the deliverable that they cannot hit the deadline.
4. When an outsourcer gets grumpy about what you’ve asked them to do.
5. They don’t come to a meeting that has been arranged.
6. They’re rude to other members of the team.
They ALL happened to me when I was in-house.
So when starting my own company I was aware of these issues and determined NOT to do them.
Clients like to work with us multiple ways, and we try and accommodate everything
Clients like to work with us multiple ways, and we try and accommodate everything. From the very basic: An asset list and some game capture, right through to high-end, middleware, access to the game build and working 1:1 with an on-team programmer.
I much prefer to have access to audio middleware and then sit with a programmer fine tuning to make sure it’s working as designed and hear it in game as you’re playing it. The results are far superior.
On Shadow of the Beast, the programmer moved into my studio initially for a few days, where we fine-tuned and mixed the game, which made such a massive improvement. The programmer was reticent at first, obviously this was taking time away from other bugs and problems he had to deal with, but he really enjoyed it and could hear the improvement in the audio. So much so, in fact, that he extended his time in the studio a further 2 days, as he appreciated how much this process was improving the game. We were on a massive high when it was finished. The mixing and tuning process of a game is often the most overlooked but is SO important.
My final point is on value…
Getting positive feedback and being asked for your opinion only strengthens the relationship
I’ve just finished voice direction on another fantastic game. Not only was it a great script, but I felt really valued and that my opinion counted. So maybe my parting words as working as an outsourcer should actually be for the clients: Getting positive feedback and being asked for your opinion only strengthens the relationship. As an outsourcer you should always put 100% into every job, but once you feel valued you’ll push yourself further to do your absolute best, which is only ever a good thing for their game!
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